SOLEDAD — Soledad City Council members discussed the possible need for district-based elections last month.
No action was taken at the June 16 meeting, but the presentation from City Manager Brent Slama was followed by discussion as to when such a shift would be needed.
Slama said he and Mayor Anna Velazquez met with members of LULAC to discuss the item on April 15, and that his presentation followed that discussion.
Soledad currently uses an at-large voting system, which goes back to its incorporation 100 years ago. In this system, any voting resident can vote for any city council candidate.
In a district-based system, voters would only be able to vote for council candidates from their district. The city’s election system has not been without change.
“Back in 2004 for the first time, we directly elected the mayor,” Slama said. “Before that time, it was an appointment among the members of the council.”
Slama explained only Salinas and King City use the district-based election system in the Salinas Valley, but Greenfield has recently adopted a resolution of intent committing to district elections for the upcoming 2022 elections.
He said encouragement to switch systems comes from legal challenges that could arise due to the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) passed in 2001, which could challenge elections based on allegations of violations of voting rights of protected classes, including diluting their ability to influence the results of an election. Such outcomes would look like racially polarized election results.
“One of the biggest concerns that we’ve had locally with transitioning to district-based elections is the ability to hold contested elections in these districts,” Slama said.
Switching to districts would be the only way to assure legally that an election system cannot be challenged under the provisions of the CVRA, Slama said. The mayor could remain at-large since the seat represents the will of the people citywide.
Also a concern by Slama and the council was the split of motivation, which could result from districts.
“The conversation the mayor and I were on was how do we promote more people to run, because obviously I think it’s important we present to the public that they have options, if people participate in the process,” Slama said.
Councilmember Marisela Lara also commented on the point, making note of King City Councilmember Carlos Victoria, who had expressed a lack of interest in wanting to continue to run for city council and was later elected by six write-in votes after no one else ran in his district.
Lara questioned if districts would encourage more people to participate, as anything that encouraged more voter turnout and increased numbers of candidates would be a benefit, she said.
Councilmember Alejandro Chavez said distorted voter turnouts would dilute the power of officials, where one wins by six votes and another wins by 500. He called King City’s example an experiment that proved where situations could have an imbalance.
Councilmember Ben Jimenez Jr. expressed his desire to make sure older portions of Soledad are represented, himself having been a resident of the city since 1973 and other members of the council not only being newer arrivals, but also living in more recently developed areas.
“I do have concerns about our more mature part of town,” Jimenez said. “There isn’t a good representation down there … we see the growth going in these other, newer sections. We need that to always keep in mind where we’re from.”
He said the council’s goal should be toward the quality of life for everyone in town and not just a few residents.
Slama explained that if and when a decision is made to switch to districts, the city would hire a demographer who uses Census data to split the city into representational groupings. He added the city has not received further official correspondence from LULAC or anyone else about district-based voting.
“This is something with the anticipated growth of the city moving forward that we will probably want to tend to at some point,” Slama said. “… It’s certainly a topic, as we grow, that will become more relevant.”
Lara was in favor of community surveys to gauge interest.
Mayor Pro Tem Carla Strobridge was also in favor about community dialogue and recommended making the item a yearly discussion.
“We’re up here for a reason and that’s because we all love Soledad and we want to make a difference for our residents,” Strobridge said.